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Self-Portrait in Black and White  By  cover art

Self-Portrait in Black and White

By: Thomas Chatterton Williams
Narrated by: Thomas Chatterton Williams
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Publisher's Summary

A meditation on race and identity from one of our most provocative cultural critics.

A reckoning with the way we choose to see and define ourselves, Self-Portrait in Black and White is the searching story of one American family's multigenerational transformation from what is called Black to what is assumed to be White. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a "Black" father from the segregated South and a "White" mother from the West, spent his whole life believing the dictum that a single drop of "Black blood" makes a person Black. This was so fundamental to his self-conception that he'd never rigorously reflected on its foundations - but the shock of his experience as the Black father of two extremely White-looking children led him to question these long-held convictions. 

It is not that he has come to believe that he is no longer Black or that his kids are White, Williams notes. It is that these categories cannot adequately capture either of them - or anyone else, for that matter. Beautifully written and bound to upset received opinions on race, Self-Portrait in Black and White is an urgent work for our time.

©2019 Thomas Chatterton Williams (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

What listeners say about Self-Portrait in Black and White

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Honest self-portrait of identity

Thomas Chatterton Williams presents a strong case that use of racial designations in identity description is meaningless. Stated differently he believes that there is only one race of humans, the human race. And that further racial identifications is not only meaningless but also destructive. He is joined in this opinion by such "Black" intellectuals as John McWhorter, Kmele Foster, Coleman Hughes, Winfred Reilly, and Glenn Loury among others.

SELF-PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE - UNLEARNING RACE is an intensely personal description of key portions of Williams' life that led him to his conclusions about race.

As Juneteenth 2020 approaches and we consider the violent death of George Floyd at the hands/knees of Minneapolis police officers it is a time for citizens to reflect on matters of race in the US, it seems odd to me that Audible buys 100% into the religion of antiracism to the point of not recommending this book while recommending others that take the opposite view.

One of the most interesting aspects of Williams' book is his description of sending a DNA sample to 23andME for evaluation. That is something that I have also done. I learned that over 3% of my DNA is from West Africa while the most of the rest is northern European. The fact is that few of us are of one "race"; we are almost all mixtures. The average "Black" in the US is 27% white. Most people would classify me as "white" but under the "one drop rule" at 1/32nd "Black" I qualify as "Black". Author of this book Thomas Chatterton Williams has two children both of whom are blue-eyed blondes.

Human racial designations are meaningless!

12 people found this helpful

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Insightful and honest introspection

Thomas Chatterton Williams “Self-Portrait” is a book full of insightful question about race and our relationship to it. The book mainly struggles with the conundrum of how poor race is a category for defining or even understanding people. Biologically race doesn’t make much sense in the human context. Evolutionarily, population, race, species, sub-species etc are, over times both long and short, transient and ever shifting. Words like sub-species, and race don’t even make sense in the context of the human ape, Homo sapiens. This isn’t to say that for some groups certain sets of genes might clump one statistically probable clouds for short periods of time, nor that those clouds, better thought of as gene pools, might not, when well understood, help people understand the history of their ancestors or even grant insight into health. When looked at that way the language of color this person is black, that person is white implodes and the social construction of race reveals itself.

Williams grapples with this, not in the scientific language of the population ecologist, or the geneticist but as a logician and philosopher. He does cite a few biologists and work on the genetics of human difference (which is more superficial than most people realize) to ground his conclusion. But his use of reason, logic and the moves of serious philosophy are sufficient in many ways to doom the idea of race.

There is more here than that of course and I’ll let Williams speak for himself and not further synopsis the book. It’s worth your time even if you don’t find yourself in agreement. Williams is a gifted writer, and a challenging thinker. This is always a good thing.

5 people found this helpful

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Clear thinking as counterculture

Williams is a gifted thinker and writer, which makes his attention to this topic a real and important contribution. His background in philosophy lends itself well to the discussion and his familiarity with Ellison, Crouch, and Baldwin are noticeable at certain points in the book.

Sadly, these great writers are largely ignored in America where individualism is drowned out by hollow intersectionality and its illogical companion, collectivism.

4 people found this helpful

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Mixed Girl

I could relate to the story being of mixed race and very fair skinned. The book allowed me to take another’s perspective into mind and think about why I allow race to affect my life soo much.

3 people found this helpful

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Important work

On a long ride and just finished the best book on race that I’ve read in 25 years. This is the most important voice on the issue of race in America in this generation. In contrast to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ observations, anecdotes and anger Chatterton Williams has a reasoned, optimistic solution based vision for how we shed race and truly move forward.

3 people found this helpful

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Self-Portrait in Black and White

Williams writes well, and his gentle, meandering articulate anecdotes were enjoyable to listen to (audiobook). In a book less than 5 hours long though it felt like it could have had more substance. There were probably 3 or 4 good blog posts here, not a novel.

I think he made some good points, and I tend to agree that much of anti-racist ideology perpetuates the very framework that it fights against. The idea that Obama was America's first 'black' president {rather than bi-racial, mixed racial, multi-racial, etc} is, unintentionally, a support of the 'one drop' ideology. How to support the real experiences of people who have suffered under that ideology, without giving life and power to it? It's not all that clear.

I had quite a few more thoughts about this book. I might read it again.

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This is not a memoir, this is a 200 page essay. One of the worst examples of memoir in world literature

This is not a memoir, this is a 200 page essay.

I really did not like this book as a memoir. It’s a lot of summarizing events and the character talking about his realizations and philosophy and what he’s going through life.

I do understand that every writer has their style, but this is not a memoir. Most memoirs are narratives, chapters telling you a story, just like you see in fiction. This book is divided into three sections, and a prologue that’s almost 20% of the length of the book, With nonstop talking about experience and giving insight.

There are some scenes and some experience the author has in the book that I resonate with. I like how he mentions that in some countries having one drop of African blood makes you black even though you want identifies biracial, and in some other countries it’s looked at as off-white.

I really think that this book would benefit if it had more of a plot and multiple characters, and was more meditative like this boys life, Charles Bukowski affection, and some James Baldwin novels. Just rambling like an essay style for 200 pages makes this book in engaging

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Phenomenal Rebuttal to a Race Obsessed Society

A well-written and enjoyable to listen to discussion and argument for the wildly overdue concept of abandoning race as a defining characteristic of all peoples. Williams highlights the farsical ruse that nealy all of us have fallen victim to in the trap of seeing race as something that should be focused on at large.

It begs the question "What benefit has distinguishing people by the 'color' of their skin ever yielded?

As a side note, A FAR superior read compared to "Between the World and Me"

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didn't expect much

I'm happy my class assigned this book it has become my favorite of the year!!

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Does the author actually believe what he says?

I am sure that he does but it’s hard to believe so given the way he read it - he sounded almost bored. Perhaps that’s his nature / character.